Open Data in Montréal

I am interested in all things open, first of all open source, open science and research, and an idea that slowly makes its way, open data. Fortunately, a well-organized group has sprung to life in Montréal to promote this worthwhile idea, Montréal Ouvert, which had its third meeting yesterday evening. Their faq is helpful to clarify the topic. There is simply no reason, apart from privacy and security concerns, for the government, our government, not to share its data openly with the citizens. Moreover, in an era of tight public budgets, with past histories of run-away IT public projects, there is no reason not to tap public ideas and resourcefulness. It is just simply a better way of doing things: instead of the government, or government agencies, trying to guess what the public wants, and taking years and lots of money for  brittle applications, why not just let the public experiment, and let a thousand applications bloom!

I did a short introduction to the concept in our course on data management for transportation at Ecole Polytechnique, which I warmly recommend to all transportation students (“program or be programed!“, a topic for another post), and showed the following video:

So, what about Montréal? Well, Montréal is the last of the large Canadian cities without an official policy on open data, and much less a plan for its implementation (but I guess this is not surprising given other city hall practices and in Québec in general). Toronto has one, Vancouver has one, Edmonton has one, Ottawa has one, even Nanaimo has one! This is a shame, and all the more for transportation data and research (Google maintains a list of publicly available GTFS feeds). It is a public scandal that the STM, the Montréal public transit company, provides its transit data free of charge to Google and not to everyone: I am not against Google, there is just no reason not to make it available to everyone else! Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, you can get the smart card data from Transport for London, and smaller cities like Rennes in France have comprehensive open data libraries (see the API that includes the data for their bike-sharing service: how long are we going to wait for BIXI?). The following is an example of visualization of the oyster card data (thanks to the transportationist):

So Montréal, wake up!

2 Comments on “Open Data in Montréal”

  1. Rick says:

    – security & privacy are big concern when each transit smart card (or OPUS in Montreal) has a name, an adress and specific travel patterns of each user. Even erasing names and adresses can still reveal enough sensitive information about someone.

    – If I was managing a transit agency, I wouldn’t like that my transit agency spent money on managing and updating data while a terciary app developper gets to create an app using this free data and sells this app for a net profit.

    – Liability is also an issue. There’s a bunch of products (apps) that the transit agency won’t take responsability for (because they haven’t checked the work behind the app).

  2. Thanks for the comment. Some replies

    – yes, security and privacy are obvious issues (note that not all transportation data is personal and can be easily directly anonymized like travel times). It is true that even anonymized smart card data can be sensitive, but there are technical solutions to solve that issue, like aggregation, sub-sampling and even adding noise (as was done in Berkeley’s Mobile Millenium project).

    – the first point is that the data does not belong to the transit agency, but to the users and the citizens who pay for the service in one way or another: therefore, the agency has no right to keep it. Second, it it not the agency’s job to develop apps and they should not care whether someone makes money or not with the data: it is not their business. See the example of the economic impact of weather data in the US and Europe (it is provided free of charge in the US and generates a large industry that more than makes up for the cost of providing the data free, while it is provided at a cost in Europe, and no such industry exists, which ends up costing more to the tax payer, without direct access to the data).

    – finally, liability is not an issue, just as it is not an issue for open source code (“the software is provided as is…”).

    Sorry, there is just no excuse for the transit agencies not to provide adequate information services, and open data to their users and the citizens at large who fund them. There are standards and processes to work out, but refusing to open data is nothing more in the end than inertia of big bureaucratic entities, as the examples of other cities and transit companies around the world shows.

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